There are three misconceptions about philosophy that I'd like to clear up today. The first is that it's an academic discipline, carried out by professors and graduate students in quarterlies and journals while the rest of us breathlessly await reports of their findings. Actually, many people like me who care about philosophy don't pay any attention to the back-and-forth of insular academic journals. If anything useful emerges from one of these journals, we figure, we'll eventually read about it on a blog. This doesn't happen, we notice, very often.
It is a fact that many professors call themselves philosophers, and that some top professors at top colleges consider themselves very important philosophers. But there is little evidence that any academic work is getting noticed in the real world, and philosophy is thoroughly concerned with the real world. It's a telling fact that the most popular American philosopher of the past hundred years, Ayn Rand (who I have been knocking myself out here to refute) was not an academic, and also that the most popular European philosopher of the past two hundred years, Friedrich Nietzsche (who I have been knocking myself out to promote) began his career as an academic, but only managed to find a reading audience after leaving the University of Basel and slowly going insane, at the same time writing the great non-academic works that made him a star.
I hope the philosophy professors in all the colleges of the world are doing a great job teaching their students (this is, after all, the primary responsibility of a college professor). But as for the original work they are doing, it's mostly fan-fiction as far as I can tell. Lots of words, very little impact.
The second misconception is that philosophy is difficult or mentally challenging. Why does it have to be? The early Zen Buddhists were way ahead of the rest of the world on this front; they taught that the most powerful realizations arrive from confounding, not massaging, the rational mind. Philosophy should be challenging, of course -- spiritually challenging, emotionally challenging. It should confront you to your core. But the best philosophical writers of all time, from Plato to Rene Descartes to William James to Ludwig Wittgenstein to (again) Friedrich Nietzsche and the wrong-headed but admittedly talented Ayn Rand, wrote simple words. I remember how Descartes's Meditations On First Philosophy knocked me off my chair when I was a freshman at college. There was nothing complex about his arguments; to appreciate the challenge he was presenting, you merely had to open your mind to his method and follow where he led.
I can never understand why a book of philosophy should be boring or difficult. Satori does not require fourteen-letter words or Greek characters or equations that look like integral calculus. I can think of no clearer sign that an alleged philosopher has a muddled message than a long, painful and incomprehensible text. No wonder philosophy is unpopular today, if anybody believes you should have to suffer to enjoy it! I'm here to spread the happy news that you should not have to suffer to enjoy it.
The third, and probably most pernicious misconception about philosophy is that it's a practice without a purpose. I blame the professors above for much of this bad rep -- they are required to publish regularly to keep their jobs, and so they publish a lot of articles that clearly serve no purpose, leading those who try to read the articles to give up and conclude that philosophy itself serves no purpose. What a terrible mistake! The reason we engage in philosophical speculation, investigation and debate is that we are trying to make important discoveries that will greatly improve our lives. And we do make these discoveries, and they do improve our lives and our societies. It is philosophy that can save a broken marriage, or motivate a discouraged and mistreated employee to get up and quit his job, or remind a parent to spend time with his kids. It is philosophy that inspires a wealthy person to donate all his money to a worthy charity, or inspires a government to pass laws that will improve the lives of its citizens, or inspires perplexed politicians to find a way to avoid or end a war (likewise, all too often, it is the lack of a coherent philosophy that causes a war to begin).
What do you know? What do you see when you open your eyes? Why do you do the things you do? Are you living your life wrong? Do you feel good about who you are? "The unexamined life," Socrates said, "is not worth living". I sure wouldn't want to live it. To be a philosopher, here is what you need: patience, focus, seriousness of purpose, honesty, openness to ideas that may seem at first glance impossible or preposterous or offensive. Humility. The will to work hard, and the will to follow through on your promises in pursuit of your ideals.
Forget the distractions and the petty invitations to a permanent state of negativity. Find the source of the river. Wrap your arms around the trunk of the tree. What is life? What is a family? What is a country? What is a religion? What do we do when we fall in love? Why do we hate the people we hate? These are the questions that need answering. Help us answer them, and you are living the philosophical life.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Siri Hustvedt on Desire. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Jonathan Haidt Makes Some Sense.